“There you are, you’re on a different phone!”
The soft-spoken voice of Kimberly Reed betrays no anxiety or stress, even as she fusses with her headset on the phone. We commiserate over the woes (and wonders) of technology.
The transgender director of Prodigal Sons and producer of The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, she has delivered some of the best queer-themed documentaries. Her latest film, Dark Money, has contributed to the conversation about the role of anonymous money in politics following the Citizen’s United Supreme Court decision, which allowed unlimited corporate campaign contributions with few transparent reporting requirements.
The film has also generated a good deal of praise for exposing corruption in the offices of elected officials like former right-wing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
We caught up with Reed the week of Oscar nominations to chat about her film, her mission, and her life. (Dark Money streams free on PBS.com, as well as YouTube, Vudu & Amazon.)
One thing that jumped out at me right away: the film covers a lot of territory. It also touches on different genres. It’s an investigative piece, a political thriller, a courtroom drama, and environmentalist polemic. How do you wrangle a story so sweeping?
You know, that was the big challenge with this film. It’s an enormous topic. How do you make a movie about money in politics? It’s too broad. It’s too vague. That is the challenge. Finding different narrative strategies to take us through a scope that deep was the key. One of the hardest aspects of this was getting out all this exposition—just establishing the rules of the road of what is illegal. So when we end up in a courtroom, people understand the drama.
I’ve also been working in opera a lot recently and telling these really big, sprawling stories and trying to distill them down to a small, human scale. I mean, come on, opera can generally be an annoying art form because of how pretensions it is. The point is to try and tell really big stories by using a small human scale. That was the task at hand with Dark Money. Of course, it really helps by starting with these citizen legislators and making politics something that hits people on an everyday scale rather than something that happens over there in Washington DC. I worked with a brilliant editor, Jay Arthur Sterrenberg, and he was just on this. He wasn’t afraid to have this full bore narrative strategy that wasn’t afraid to switch off narrators.
And you discover a varied chorus.
It was also really important to have the main narrator, [journalist] John Adams, so we can really see the world through his eyes as he’s uncovering clues. Once he started going through all the things he goes through—losing his job—he basically became emblematic of everything that’s going on with journalism today, which is a very important point to get across. So we had the opportunity to let people understand at a very basic emotional level, what it’s like when you don’t have watchdog journalists keeping an eye on corrupt governmental power.
This is a political film without being partisan. You talk to a lot of politicians in the film, and I was surprised that most of them are Republicans from a very red state. Were they at all reluctant to discuss the issue, given that the GOP’s official stance—and indeed, the five GOP judges—is that the Citizens United decision was a good one?
You know, they weren’t. With the lay of the land, with the local politics, that is not the official party platform. I think the only place where that is the official party platform is at the federal level. If you drill down and go state by state, city by city, you can find plenty of Republicans who think that [the Citizens United decision] is a terrible idea. I think if you look at it from the bottom up instead of the top down, you can see this better. At the top, Mitch McConnell has taken it as his duty to weaponize anonymous money and to protect dark money, I don’t know if you geek out on this stuff…
Well every budget that has passed since Citizen’s United, there are always riders he’s including that prevent any kind of laws that prevent oversight of 501C4’s. He just keeps doing that in the budget. Democrats have not been in a position where they can fight it.
But if you look at the issue state by state, that’s really not true. So these folks—as we say in Montana—were chomping at the bit. There’s a philosophical split in the Republican party. Some folks are taking the “free speech” line: saying that disclosing who’s spending dark money is an abridgment of free speech. But I think in general, all of us would be very surprised by the number of Republicans advocating for [eliminating dark money]. Every election style we’re seeing more and more states broaching this, even if that’s not happening at the federal level.
I have to ask this too—how did they respond knowing you are a transgender woman? Did that make interviewing them or gaining access harder?
I did not really have a problem with access. I don’t know how much they Googled me or not…
So I’m not sure how much impact that had. Let’s just say I did not ever run into a situation where someone said, I’m not going to talk to you because you’re trans.
In general, I think there’s a big difference between social conservatism in Montana or the Rocky Mountain west where people are like, You do your thing, I’ll do my thing. That’s a very different social environment than I see in other parts of the US, like generally in the South where belief is more tightly woven into someone’s social conservatism. So I think that explains a lot of that difference. Since I’m from Montana, that probably helped me more than being trans hurt me.
That makes perfect sense. So were you threatened at all during filming? The American Tradition Partnership has a long history of attacking journalists & scientists as well as politicians.
One of the characters of these dark money groups is that they tend to organize, wreak havoc in one or two election cycles, and then disappear and reconstitute as something else. When I started digging into what happened in the 2010-2012 elections, ATP had dried up and blown away. They had disbanded. As such, I wasn’t attacked by them. There was certainly pressure coming from that wing of the Republican party. But to be honest, I really felt like I was operating from a majority position. I feel like that because if you look at polls since Citizens United, it’s always 75-80 percent of the people that think more money in politics is a bad idea, and that more anonymous money in politics is an even worse idea. I was not in a minority; I was the majority. It felt that way with the general public I was talking to in Montana. I tried to get folks on the street who disagreed, but I couldn’t find that opposite point of view.
So I think it says a lot that I wasn’t fighting an uphill battle. 80% of the American public agrees. It’s only a few people with their hands on the levers of power that continue to take advantage because they’ve cornered the market on anonymous money. They see it as a political tool. But the public rejects it.
You mentioned John Adams earlier. The film also really pushes the idea of journalists under attack, not just in a political sense. Pure journalistic outlets like newspapers are evaporating in favor of internet news. In a way, that’s as dangerous as dark money, because nobody monitors that. Do you think that the “fake news” journalistic crisis is a result of the internet age?
I think that regardless of whether a journalistic enterprise is online or entrenched is immaterial. I think the most important aspect of a journalistic enterprise is the reputation they build. You can build that online or in print, and we’ve seen much of the reputation outlets built in print transition to online. Right now, we’re in the middle of a furor about this BuzzFeed story that came out over the weekend.
I was going to mention…
It’s immaterial whether something is online or in print if you have that same editorial structure in place. If you have that same watchdog journalism, the Ben Bradlee-esque editors who are really toeing the line, hopefully, we’re moving toward a system where we can have that same [Washington Post print edition-like] editorial infrastructure online. Like what you guys at Queerty do, which is awesome. I think that having online publications has maybe made it easier for stories that aren’t quite as solid to get published.
But at the end of the day, it’s the publications with solid reputations that will be the sources we go back to. There’s always going to be some flux, but I think things will settle down where we have solid, reliable publications online that have strong reputations.
The other side of that is that, in the digital age, there are people who deliberately give you something that is not accurate because they have nefarious motives. There’s no FCC monitoring for podcasts or blogs. And with smaller, local newspapers going bankrupt, people only get their news from websites, blogs, podcasts, etc. If there’s no oversight though, how do we fight back against a false narrative?
What I’m trying to do is drive citizens to demand integrity from their news sources, because we desperately need that local news. There is so much political power in making decisions on the school board level d in whatever town in Illinois, or the county commission, or the city commission. A lot of it is just teaching media literacy. That’s one of the aims I hope our film provides. If you’re going to be a good citizen, you really need to engage the news and not just let it fly by.
Over the course of the film, you and some of your journalistic characters do expose the origin of these PACs and 501C4s. They come from the usual suspects: Sheldon Adelson, Koch brothers. Now, this is a two-part question. Did you encounter any of these shadow groups working in favor of Democrats?
This goes both ways. Both Republicans and Democrats benefit from dark money. So I don’t want to say this problem only comes from one side of the political aisle. That said, I also don’t want to create a false equivalence, saying, they’re all the same. There’s a vast difference in the amount of dark money spent on the right rather than the left. There is also—and this is maybe the most important thing—a huge difference between the right and the left when it comes to who is proposing solutions.
That’s an important thing to keep an eye one. Ways to make elections fair, ways to establish transparency, those solutions are only coming from the left. You can’t forget that too. But let me also say I also don’t think that people on the left should rest on their laurels. We’re seeing an increase in dark money spending on the left. We’re seeing that happen more and more, especially this latest cycle, there was a real spike. My point is that whether it’s on the left or the right its a really bad idea to be funding our campaigns with a bunch of anonymous money. That’s especially true with judicial elections. How are we going to get judges—a municipal, state, or federal judge—recuse themselves from a case where they benefited financially from someone if we don’t know who that person is? Someone who may be a party in a case sitting before a judge…
Part two: There is also a lot of fear about foreign money getting into elections through dark money. What evidence did you uncover, if any, that foreign powers are involved in our elections? Obviously, we’ve been talking about this since 2016.
We didn’t see foreign money coming into that election [in Montana]. But the film uses Montana as a microcosm, and you see all the crazy stuff that could be going on at the federal level. But there’s no doubt that there was foreign money in our election. I don’t have the smoking gun, but what I would say is to point everyone to something I’ve been keeping a close eye on: There are lots of connections between a lot of Russian operators, and the NRA.
And that’s not just Maria Butina. There was a lot of cross talk and connections between Russian operatives and the NRA.
That’s Thing One. Thing Two is that its indisputable is that the NRA’s dark money group gave three times as much money to the Trump campaign as they had ever given before. Why they suddenly decided to give someone who has never owned a gun or shot a gun, why they decided to donate three times as much money to his campaign is a big question. So we know Thing One and Thing Two. We have not connected it yet, but that’s what I’m looking for.
I want to see that movie. I know the critical response has been great for you. What has the social response been? Have you been attacked by one side of the political aisle? By specific politicians?
I feel like I’m sitting with the majority. There was a little bit of trolling, but not that big a deal. There are some right-wing think tanks that have weighed into the topic a bit, but to be honest, it’s pretty hard to find a deepened debate about the limits of the First Amendment and how that should translate into fundraising. And I love that debate. I’m a documentary filmmaker. I use the First Amendment every day. I’d love to have that debate, but it’s hard to find a responsible adult that won’t break down into ad-hominid attacks.
That’s a whole other interview.
There’s resounding unanimity in the response of people who have seen the film. People get it. They know the dots are out there, but they never have the opportunity to connect all the dots. We had an opportunity to connect all the dots. People by and large get it, except for a few people with their hands on the levers of power who want to milk the system. We’re speaking on behalf of the vast majority of America.
One last thing I would just say is that I think it’s important talking to you. When people ask what does Dark Money have to do with the queer community, I think that so much of the injustice that happens to LGBTQ folks is due to the people who control political power in this country. I think what really drove me more fundamentally to finish this film was this feeling of injustice that comes from the same small group of moneyed people who are just, time and again, grabbing democracy out of the hands of a large number of us. Those always seem to be the same people interested in driving these social wedges.
Time and again, it’s LGBTQ folk who fall victim to that. In figuring out how to get to the root of that problem is to figure out how to get to the money. When you have this system of funding that gives you some people access that others don’t have it is just incredibly unjust.
Dark Money streams free on PBS.com, as well as YouTube, Vudu & Amazon.